Reduce your risk of cancer with a healthy diet

A healthy diet can reduce your risk of cancer. Find out what makes a healthy diet and what foods to avoid.

Avoiding unhealthy foods and eating foods that are good for you is a great way to reduce your risk of cancer. To maintain a healthy diet and therefore a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet based on the Food Pyramid. Research also shows that a healthy diet reduces your risk of cancer coming back (for cancer survivors).

The top tips for eating a good diet:

Cut down on foods high in calories, fat and sugar

Limiting your intake of calories, fat and sugar will keep you from being overweight or obese, which reduces your risk of cancer. Cakes, sweets, biscuits and the food at the top of the Food Pyramid (like butter) are high in fats and low in nutrients.

Check the food labels for the amounts of calories, fats and sugar. A quick guide:

Every 100 grams of food:

  • Fat: 20 grams or more is a lot, 3 grams or less is a little
  • Saturates: 5 grams or more is a lot, 1 gram or less is a little
  • Sodium: 0.5 gram or more is a lot, 0.1 gram or less is a little
  • Salt: 1.3 grams or more is a lot, 0.3 grams or less is a little
  • Sugar: 10 grams or more is a lot, 2 grams or less is a little
  • (reference: Safefood)

Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and pulses

These foods are generally low in calories and fat, and high in vitamins, minerals and fibre. They also contain antioxidants that help protect cells in the body from damage that can lead to cancer.

Fruit and vegetables: By eating a good selection of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables like peppers tomatoes and berries, you will get many of the important nutrients your body needs. A good guide to getting enough fruit and vegetables:

  • Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • Use fresh, tinned (in natural juices or light syrup), frozen or dried fruits and vegetables
  • Smoothies, vegetable soups, stews and casseroles are a good way to eat fruits and vegetables
  • Fruit juices are high in sugar, so just have on serving a day (that's 150 milliletres)

Wholegrains: Wholegrains help you stay full for longer and maintain a healthy weight. To get wholegrains into your diet:

  • Choose brown bread over white
  • Eat porridge or wholegrain cereal for breakfast
  • Eat brown rice instead of white
  • Choose wholewheat pasta

Pulses: Pulses are peas, beans and lentils; they are a great addition to your diet because they're high in fibre and protein. They are also filling and keep your hunger pangs away.

Some pulses tips:

  • Tinned version are handy but can be high in salt. Be sure to drain them and rinse under water.
  • Pulses are great to add to salads, casseroles and soups.

Limit your intake of red and processed meat

Red meat is beef (hamburgers, minced beef), lamb, pork (pork chops) and goat. Processed meats have been smoked, cured, salted or had chemical preservatives added. Ham, salami, pastrami, hot dogs, rashers and sausages are examples of processed meats.

Meat is rich in valuable nutrients like protein and iron, but when you eat large amounts, it can increase your risk of certain cancers. You should eat no more than 500 grams or 18 ounces of cooked lean red meat each week (that's 800 grams or 28 ounces of raw meat). And you should avoid processed meats altogether.

You could try the following foods instead of red and processed meats:

  • Eggs for breakfast
  • Chicken or turkey (with the skin removed) or salmon for sandwiches or salads
  • Spicy chicken instead of pepperoni pizza
  • Fresh fish, chicken or other poultry

And try one meat-free day per week.

Eat less salt

You need a certain amount of salt in your diet, but Irish people take almost twice as much salt as they need. Many foods have salt, like breads, processed meats, pizzas, sauces, crackers, snacks and cereals. Foods don't have to taste salty to have lots of salt in them.

It's important to cut down your intake of salt because high levels of salt are a likely cause of stomach cancer.

To cut down your salt intake:

  • Use fresh ingredients when you cook
  • Flavour foods with spices, black pepper, herbs, lemon juice or garlic instead of salt
  • Cut out salt when you're cooking or eating food

Don't use dietary supplements as a replacement for healthy food

The best source of nourishment is food and drink, not dietary supplements. You can get all the nutrients you need from a healthy and balanced diet. Unless your doctor or dietician suggests supplements, you don't need them.

Breastfeed your baby, if you can

Breastfeeding helps protect mothers against breast cancer. It's also the ideal way to give babies the nutrients they need to reduce their risk of becoming overweight later in life. If you can, breastfeed your baby for the first six months. You can continue to breastfeed as you add other liquids and foods to your baby's diet.

Managing portion sizes

  • Use a smaller plate. Most people use a very large dinner plate. This is usually far too much food. Unless you are doing two or three hours exercise every day, you don’t need a big plate. Use a salad or breakfast plate instead (not a side plate!). Remember that this applies to men, women and children.
  • Make sure at least one third of the food on your dinner plate is made up of vegetables or salad.
  • Don’t fill your plate with rice or pasta. Pasta or rice should only make up about one third of the food on your plate. Remember, one serving of pasta is only three dessertspoons/2 tablespoons.
  • Eat a piece of raw fruit (like an apple, orange or kiwi) before lunch and dinner.This will help you to eat a little less, as well as helping you reach your 5-a-day target for fruit and vegetables. If you have a small bowl of fat-free vegetable soup or some raw vegetable pieces before meals, you will achieve the same thing.
  • Never fill your stomach when you eat; always leave some room. You will stop feeling hungry long before you feel full. Always have some room in your stomach at the end of a meal. If you are forcing food in, then you are eating too much.
  • Choose snacks that are packaged in individual portions to stop you from over-eating.
  • Go for ‘small’ food portions at the cinema or in a fast-food restaurant. These are normally still generous portions

Use the Food Pyramid to help you plan your meals every day

The Food Pyramid tells you what makes up a healthy and balanced diet. Follow its guidelines and you'll stay healthy and reduce your risk of cancer.

How to use the Food Pyramid:

  • Eat more foods from the bottom sections of the pyramid and fewer from the top
  • Watch your portion size


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Make a food diary to stay on top of what you're eating

A food diary can help you check how balanced your diet is compared to the Food Pyramid. Write in your diary what you're eating throughout the day (as opposed to the end of the day).

Keep a record of:

  • What you eat
  • When you eat
  • How much you eat (portion size)
  • Who you eat with
  • Thoughts and feelings you have when you eat. This can help you understand what triggers you to eat certain foods and help you plan how to make changes

More information

Diet and cancer

Alcohol and cancer

Body weight and cancer

Date Last Reviewed: 
Thursday, December 8, 2016